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The Anatomy of A Great Agency Website

Chris Butler: Hello and welcome to the Newfangled Agency Marketing Matters podcast. I’m Chris Butler.

Lauren Siler: I’m Lauren Siler.

Mark O’Brien: I’m Mark O’Brien.

Chris Butler: We get together every couple of weeks just to talk about digital marketing topics in my office slash recording studio. We also like to bat around a little bit about what’s been interesting this week. What kinds of things have we encountered with our clients and agency partners, that would be relevant to hear about. Let’s start with Mark. What have you got?

Mark O’Brien: Mine has to do with a conversation I had this morning. We were speaking with Jason Mlicki from Rattleback out of Columbus, Ohio and he specializes in helping professional services firms market themselves. His business is really not much different than ours in a lot of ways. We started working with Jason six years ago, a long, long time ago. He’s got a pretty small shop and one of the concerns we hear about prospects we’re speaking with is, “Uh, I’m not really sure we have enough people, we have enough firepower to actually pull off the kind of marketing you guys are talking about.” Which is understandable, because the kind of marketing we’re talking about is significant and does take a lot of time, but to see a firm the size of Rattleback, which is fewer than 10 people, do this so effectively just really dispels that.

Our answer whenever we hear that, actually yesterday we were in Kansas and we had this exact conversation with an agency there … Our answer to that is that headcount has nothing to do with an agency’s ability to pull off a system like this. We have clients that are one person shows who nail it, and we’ve seen agencies that have thousands of people who can’t figure out how to do it.

Headcount really has nothing at all to do with it, but anyway since speaking with Jason, he’s just doing so well. It’s all marketing, his entire biz dev approach is just digital marketing. Now he’s actually pulled back in public speaking. He made a real effort to get on the scene to be a public speaker over the past five years as well. We suggested he do that. His quote today was great. He said, “Why would I choose to travel all round the country when I can do all this just as effectively from my house?”

Chris Butler: Right.

Mark O’Brien: Jason has a proper office. They have actually are really nice office in Columbus, but that’s the point. He doesn’t need to leave. He can do everything he needs to do and get as much marketing as he needs to keep the entire pipeline. 95% of his leads come in through this channel, which is a lot, a lot bigger than even our recommendation, or benchmark at least. He does it all through his digital marketing, because of how he’s done it. He’s really taken all of our advice and Blair’s advice and David’s advice. He’s taken this very seriously and it’s working out really well, and now he has all the other problems of staffing and everything else and figuring out systems and scaling and all that. He was talking about a very different problem set five years ago.

Chris Butler: That’s an awesome testimony. By the way, that’s Blair Enns at Win Without Pitching and David Baker at

Lauren Siler: My story is similar in nature in that it’s with regard to an agency that’s pretty small. Fewer than 10 people as well, RHB out of Indianapolis. They’re a great client, we’ve been working with them for a while now, and they are … Just really watching how they’ve adopted the strategies that we’ve been helping them with throughout this year, specifically with their emails, they’re noticing a lot more engagement on their emails. They specialize in marketing to higher ed institutions, so colleges and universities across the country. We’ve experimented a lot with being very intentional with their persona set and really digging in to how to think about crafting messaging per different personas in the space.

What they’ve realized and what they’re observing now that they’ve really got a foundation underneath them and they’re actively marketing to these different personas in this different way, is that they’re actually getting a lot of responses back to the emails that they’re sending, which they’d never seen before. That’s really validating for them. They’re still continuing their other marketing approaches with their speaking engagements and that kind of thing but now they’re noticing when they send out a particular type of message intended for a particular segment of their audience, it’s really potent, and these people are receiving these messages and actually responding directly back to them for more information and with questions. That’s just a level of engagement that they hadn’t seen before. That’s been really exciting to observe over the last several months.

Chris Butler: Yeah. That must feel really good for them. You put things out into the ether and never hear anything. Having conversation is so much more fulfilling.

Lauren Siler: That’s true.

Chris Butler: My thing is actually really small, but it is a conversation. It has to do with limited resources too. We’re working with a company right now, that’s not really an agency. They’re a little off our beaten path, but definitely are going to make a ton of use out of the things that we do. They are partnering with a small agency to get the website redesigned. We’re not doing that work but we are consulting on that work. We’ve got this interesting triangle. In any situation like that, you always have to be careful of not stepping on the other person’s toes but making sure that they’re properly informed and making sure that it feels good to work on this project and not adversarial. Just because we’re the ones driving the strategy, but then there’s this other agency who are doing a lot of implementation.

Anyway, I was on the call with the lead designer and he was just a delightful person. We had this really nice conversation about where we’re headed. Often in those conversations we refer back to the initial audit that we do. There’s all kinds of really strong, dogmatic points in that audit and I always expect people to want to know, where’s the leeway? Where can we not do this? Where can we take liberties? His questions were just really insightful and he had done a few things that we realized need to be tweaked and we had just really nice design conversation with the client, where it just dawned on me that this person whom I had never met, had distilled all the value out of the audit. He was not even on the original conversation. He had read through this document and gotten it, agreed with the strategy and was excited about it himself. It was like, that was kind of a first, because typically when someone’s brought in like that and it’s not their direction, they’re not that excited about it.

It made me feel good that there is a way forward even when you have to arrange it in a unique way. That was exciting. Actually it’s a decent segue to our main topic this time. We wanted to talk about agency homepages. Back in August, I wrote this article called Four Things the Best Agency Homepages Do, so I’ve got lots of opinions on this. 

What I want to start with is, Mark, I’m curious, you are constantly talking to agencies for the first time and I imagine as soon as you have that call or beforehand, you’ve pulled up their website and you’re looking at it when you talk to them. From your perspective what do you see most often that should be done differently? What’s your perspective on that?

Mark O’Brien: That’s one avenue that I’m able to get exposed to a lot of agency homepages and that’s really helpful. Something at least equals that in terms of volume is that when we go and do talks, as long as the room is a manageable size, they’re under say, 60 agencies in the room, I love doing audits of other sites in advance of the talk, just to get a sense of who’s in the room and what they know and how they’re actually practicing their own marketing. Between all those things, yeah I get to see a lot of agency websites every year.

One theme that’s quite different, quite interesting to me in terms of agencies is we know that agencies are, they’re creative firms, right? They’re usually fueled by their creativity and oftentimes they lead with their creativity. Their creativity has to do with who they are too. They very much have a desire to be unique and they’re very proud of the ways in which they’re unique. They all want to express that on their website. They all strive to be quite different and to really stand out by doing something new and interesting on their site, but what’s interesting, is that in their effort to be wholly unique, they actually all end up all looking exactly the same. Right?

Chris Butler: Yep.

Mark O’Brien: It just happens again and again and again. The trends change, right? The average agency homepage five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, and now they’re different, but they’re still all homogenous.

Chris Butler: Yep.

Mark O’Brien: They’re all … they’re all a pool of minnows and they dart this way and dart that way. It’s quite surprising to see actually how consistent they are.

I know one of the first points you want to bring up is positioning. For me what I want to see is that. That’s the thing I have to see. Lauren and I were out meeting with an agency recently, in the Midwest, and they were talking about their new homepage and their big brand slogan, which they were all so passionate about. They were just so excited about their new brand slogan. I won’t say what it was to protect the innocent. They said, “Yeah we’ve got it up on our site now,” and there’s this slogan that means absolutely nothing to anyone outside of the agency. Inside the agency it meant everything, but the first person outside that door would have no idea what that slogan means or really care about it. Running through that slogan they had three different sections of beautiful positioning languages. There was actually differentiated, meaningful positioning language. They weren’t excited about that, they didn’t think that was the good stuff. They thought this brilliant slogan was the good stuff.

It’s just speaks to how for any group of people it’s so easy to become so insular and develop this internal group thing that seems to make a lot of sense internally but it’s just so hard to take that objective view.

Chris Butler: Right.

Mark O’Brien: Anyway, clear differential positioning is the first thing I want to say. It’s the last thing I usually do say.

Chris Butler: Right. It is the first thing on the outline that I tend to recommend over and over again. In that article I referenced, just as a backbone to this conversation, there are really four things that I think an agency homepage needs to do. If you do those four things, you’ve got a lot of latitude to do other stuff, provided that the other stuff doesn’t outweigh these four things.

To your point number one, it is an expression of what you do. If you look at your homepage, and forget the visuals for a second, but just think of it as a textile line. Number one is what you do. That’s the most important things that can be communicated on your homepage, period. After that, it’s what you’ve done. That’s the natural next step. Say what you do, draw a line in the sand, next thing you do is say, “Okay, here’s the proof. This is what we’ve done.” After that it’s what your clients say about that. You need to put out there what you’ve done, the next best thing you can do is have happy clients vouch for that experience. Then number four on the outline, last but not least, is what you say. I often see those things inversed, we can talk a lot about that, but that’s the basic backbone. What you do, what you’ve done, what your clients say, what you say.

Lauren, you and I have been on a lot of conversations with clients about their positioning statement, and we are starting to get, I think, a whole lot better at coaching clients through that copywriting process. It’s one thing to let go of a slogan that just doesn’t make sense at all.

Lauren Siler: Sure.

Chris Butler: It’s another thing to have a conversation about how you express your positioning, but it’s a third thing to actually just write that text.

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

Chris Butler: Talk to me a little bit about that.

Lauren Siler: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think one of the things that we’ve observed in talking to many agencies about this is to break it down and make it a little bit more formulaic at first.

Chris Butler: Right.

Lauren Siler: Which they tend to resist, because they’re coming at it with this creative mindset, which makes sense and you want it to be emotive, you want it to be evocative and to resonate and to mean something. We’re all big believers in that too, but if you start there sometimes you can actually forget to say what it is that you do or who you do it for. One of the biggest things that we’ve had to work with with agencies is just to walk that back a little bit and just think about the formula of what a positioning statement is, how to write it, what are the core components of it, and then think about how to make it emotive and evocative from there.

Chris Butler: Like a mad-lib, basically.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, yeah. Actually, yeah.

Chris Butler: That never seems to click. I’ve brought that up so many times and I think that really turns people off. Fundamentally, what you’re talking about on the informative side, the basic structure of a positioning statement is we do blank for blank. It doesn’t have to ever sound like that in the end, but starting from that place I think is essential, because it forces you to just grapple with the information you’re trying to convey. Informative first, evocative second, then you can go and bring the magic, the word magic, afterwards.

Lauren Siler: Yeah. It’s a nice litmus test after you’ve gone through and you’ve finalized your positioning statement, to go back and say, “Okay, well did we, did we lose we do blank for blank? Can we still that information now that we’ve gotten it to the creative language that we all feel really great about and have a lot of support for?”

Chris Butler: Not to mention can you actually do the mad-lib in the first place? Can you say, we do-

Lauren Siler: Sure.

Chris Butler: Can you say the blanks?

Mark O’Brien: How many blanks are there?

Chris Butler: Right, yeah. Is it we do blank, blank, blank, blank, blank for blank, blank, blank, blank, blank. If the second blank is everyone in the world, that’s also a problem. Yeah, that’s a really tricky thing, but it’s also a really inspiring experience, I think, to get to that endpoint where someone feels really excited. If you can get to point where someone’s as excited as that agency Mark just talked about, the people who are super excited about their slogan, Just Do It or whatever, Have it Your Way or whatever. I don’t know. If they can get that excited about something that’s actually going to work, that’s pretty cool. It’s just words. We’re asking them for what? Eight to ten words?

Number one, what you do, eight to ten words. Ideally, that’s accompanied by a call to action that directs that attention elsewhere. We’ve talked about this a million times on this podcast as well as in lots of articles on the site. Number two, what you’ve done. What does that mean? What it mean to show what you’ve done on the homepage? Who wants to take a stab at that?

Mark O’Brien: Well that’s what agencies tend to excel at. They love getting into portfolio work and showing off all that stuff. I think a lot of the core instincts they have serve them well, primarily in their interest in showing imagery.

Chris Butler: Yeah, but it is enough just to show a pretty picture?

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, they’re missing the stats behind the imagery, or the stats that are the result of the pictures.

Chris Butler: Even just in the homepage context though, right? You’ve got a beautiful image that you’ve created for that box, whatever that little box is you’ve got in your homepage that is referencing a piece of work you did and engagement, whatever it is. What else needs to be there? What do you say? Were you just putting the name of the client there? What’s the function in that space?

Lauren Siler: Right. It’s all about expressing the value of what you did as quickly and as succinctly as possible. Enticing somebody to click through, because people aren’t interested in your case studies because of the name of the client that you worked with necessarily.

Mark O’Brien: They may not even know that name.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, exactly. That’s going to mean something way more to the people inside of your agency than outside. Finding a way to communicate the value of that work that you did for them, what the results actually were, or at least describe the problem in a really compelling way, so that it resonates with the persona who’s actually visiting that page. “Oh that problems aligns with my problem, I need to check that out.”

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. This gets back to the insular nature of agencies. It’s not just agencies. Most organizations have this issue internally to some degree. Agencies are not at all unique in this manner, but it is very present there. They love the work, they’re proud of the work and they want to show the visuals, the visuals of the work.

The problem is an objective prospect who’s just showing up without any real need to like or dislike the agency, we talk about how your website is guilty until proven innocent because you’re a back button away from a billion other results at all time. There’s no reason for the prospect to stay there. What’s going to be more compelling to them to your point Lauren, an image that looks good, but is it that much different to the image on the last agency website they went to? That one looked good too.

Lauren Siler: Sure.

Mark O’Brien: Or, yeah a really succinct pithy like, “We had this effect and this percentage change of these sales with this organization.” That’s just a short line that gets right to the numbers. If that happens to be the kind of industry that this prospect is in, yeah they’re going to click on that.

Chris Butler: Even backing off of the proper name at that stage to some homepage and saying, “we did this thing for this type of organization.”

Mark O’Brien: “And this happened.”

Chris Butler: I think what’s really a huge light bulb for me when we were thinking about redesigning our website, which was about a year and change ago, was looking through the site that we had at the time and saying, “Okay. What we really tried to do at that time was design a beautiful website that worked. We’ve always had a perspective on what this thing should do, but we also were putting a lot of emphasis on a visual experience.”

I think what clicked for me is I started to rethink where we wanted to go, it’s like, “No, it’s about words.” Words are the most powerful thing that the site has to share. Images are important as well, and aesthetics are important as well and the visual experience is important, but if the words aren’t there, none of that matters. You can have this great piece of work but if you don’t pitch it in the right way, if you don’t have the right eight words to accompany it or five words to accompany it on the homepage then why would anyone click it?

Lauren Siler: Right.

Chris Butler: Right.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. One good point of this is that I think that most prospects are going to assume your work is good. You definitely need to have some portfolio pieces that show that its really good.

Chris Butler: Yeah.

Mark O’Brien: Using Blair’s approach, the Win Without Pitching approach, the work is really more of a closing tool.

Chris Butler: Exactly.

Mark O’Brien: Right. The words are the lead nurturing, the tool.

Chris Butler: Exactly, right. Yeah. If I put it differently, when I’ve always thought about it that the work is the verification of your expertise, but it’s not the thing that’s going to grab somebody’s attention.

Lauren Siler: Sure.

Chris Butler: It shouldn’t be. If you make it that then I think it’s more confusing.

Lauren Siler: Or even keep them long term. You think about the purpose of marketing, the people that you’re working with, your clients, most of the agencies we work with want these really long term engagements, that they’re going to be working with the same client year over year over year. That comes down to results, and that comes down to understanding what the true problem is and being able to affect change on that problem in a reliable way. That’s what you really want to be talking about.

If you’re in the business just to make a beautiful brochure or something, that’s sort of a short term engagement and that’s not really what most agencies that we speak to are really looking for.

Chris Butler: Exactly, it’s a small promise. It’s interesting, I’m actually looking at the article now that we’re talking about and we’ve got this diagram of a homepage, it’s just a basic wire frame and it’s got the number one, number two, number three, number four, next to each row. What you do, what you’ve done, what your clients way and what you say, but on the left, it’s a different word. First line, promises, right, that’s what you do. Second line, results. Number three, what your clients say, that social proof. Number four, what you say, that’s your expertise.

Let’s talk a little bit about that social proof because, Lauren, you’re saying you’ve got to put out what you’ve done there, but if you want a long term engagement, what’s the best way to make somebody believe that that’s valuable? You’re not going to get that done in an image but maybe a happy client’s words could do that?

Lauren Siler: Yeah. Specifically that it is the client saying it instead of you saying it.

Chris Butler: Right.

Lauren Siler: You’re going to have opportunity all over the site to talk about how experienced you are, how smart you are, your processes you’ve got a whole section on the site to do that. So front and center on the homepage, having that external validation from a client who you’ve actually affected change and shown success for, that’s going to go so much further than putting your words first.

Chris Butler: Yep, absolutely. I love a good testimonial. We’re trying to use them as much as we can on our sites. I think if you can do it, it means you’re doing the right kind of work.

Lauren Siler: I think it’s also not that big of a hurdle to get … You know. When I talk to agencies about this, it’s not like going to a client and asking for a couple of sentences or just some thoughts on the work that they’ve done, is that big of a mountain to climb. It’s really about remembering to do it, honestly.

Chris Butler: No, that’s absolutely the case. Although we do have some clients that are not allowed to publicize their work with an agency.

Mark O’Brien: Sure, yeah.

Chris Butler: What I recommend in that case is just anonymizing the testimonial. I think that is certainly feasible.

Mark O’Brien: Which can look a little fishy, but it’s the best you can do.

Chris Butler: It can, but it’s common.

Mark O’Brien: It is, yeah.

Chris Butler: It’s pretty common. All right, so let’s talk about the last thing really quickly. This is what you say. This is content marketing, right. On a homepage what does that mean? Are we talking about a vast river of content that goes on forever? Are we talking about a specialized group of content? Are we talking about the most recent stuff? We’ve done a couple of things on our homepage, we have both featured content and the most recent stuff. You guys have any thoughts on how that should work?

Mark O’Brien: What I’m excited about is where were going next, and it’s always fun to share those things publicly before we do them. This idea of Newfangled On. That’s coming soon to our homepage is the idea of Newfangled On: Automation, Newfangled On: Key Lead Development Metrics, Newfangled On: Site Design. Whatever it may be.

That’s really nice in that we’ve got to that point, because we realize, as we say to our clients all the time, were competing with ourselves. Or own content is pushing down our own content. When someone gets to the insights landing page, it’s going to be the past month of content maybe and we’ve got almost a decade of it to share. It really adds up we tend to talk about similar topics as we’re really focused and we do only a certain number of things. Having us on the record on x topic is great.

That also relates to our understanding of how people go through sites. They are at any given time, interested in any particular topic, and so if they could just with one click, or just on the homepage, see all of our thoughts on x topic, that’s really good and our visions are going to cycle. It’s not just one topic, so we’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket there. To figure out what those top topics are, typically related to the marketing model and then having people just be able to click one button and see all of our different webinars, white papers, podcasts, whatever it might be, that do relate to that. That’s really exciting to me.

Chris Butler: Yeah, every success leads to a new problem. In this particular case, if you’re hitting your word targets, 3,000 words a month, which we tend to radically exceed, because of things like this, for example, which will be 8,000 words or whatever, you bury your content. That’s great in the sense that you’ve got new stuff coming out all the time, but if you had a dynamite piece from last September and no one can see it, that’s a problem. You’re going to come up with evergreen content, so I think this is great.

It also maps directly into something we do behind the scenes on the editorial side, which is proactively coming up with themes that we write against each quarter. That’s not visible on the site. You can’t see that.

Mark O’Brien: Right, right, right.

Lauren Siler: Yeah. I also like the idea of having featured content on the homepage that allows you to resurrect things that marquee key pieces of content that are still entirely relevant to your personas, but maybe you promoted it six months ago and you still have an opportunity to get it out in front of people and have people submit forms to access that content and get more leads in your database from that perspective.

I think that having that featured marquee key content on the homepage from time to time it a great way to do that. A lot of agencies that we talk to, they’ll promote something once or twice and then they just forget about it. It really has longer legs most of the time than that.

Chris Butler: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. We could probably talk about this all morning, but we have a lot of content on it on the site. The way we like to close these podcasts is to recommend some reading or some viewing or listening for you all. I’ll just go first because I’m just going to plug to article that we’ve been talking about. It’s called The Four Things the Best Agency Homepages Do. You can find it on our site if you search for that and it was written back in August.

How about you guys?

Lauren Siler: Great. I want to recommend an article that we posted to the site in May that is specifically about how to market to a purchased email list. We work with a lot of agencies to grow their contact database through list acquisition and then the question becomes, what do we do with purchased names and how do we effectively market to these people? We’ve got a great article on the site that kind of walks through some individual strategies for that and I think it’d be good to revisit and take a look at.

Chris Butler: Cool.

Mark O’Brien: I’m also plugging another article from Holly. Holly wrote that right? 

Chris Butler: Yeah. That is Holly Fong, yep.

Mark O’Brien: She recently published an article, Four Barriers to Online Advertising For Agencies. One of the things that I get excited about inside of Newfangled is the idea it’s like sort of an entrepreneurial colony where different people can have different ideas and then they have the structure and systems in place, those being what comprise Newfangled, to actually execute those ideas. Holly is now embarking on one of those journeys, which is to offer different paid advertising, and manage those services for our clients. This article is all about some of the barriers that are common for agencies and businesses in general when they’re thinking about approaching that particular strategy.

That’s a nice way to open up the service, to get a conversation going, to go on the record that yeah, we’re talking about this stuff now. That’s an exciting new development inside of Newfangled.

Chris Butler: Cool.

Mark O’Brien: Also pretty cutting edge there.

Chris Butler: Well, that’s a wrap. I hope you guys enjoyed this episode. If you did, please tell your friends about it. You can find us on iTunes and definitely rate us. That helps spread the word about the existence of this podcast.

This goes without saying, but this is what we do for a living. These things that we’re talking about, that’s what Newfangled’s all about. If you want to talk to us about that, if you’re interested in hooking it up, give us a call.